It just sort of happened.
That’s the way that Joseph DeCandia, Jr., of Howard Beach—recently honored as Man of the Year by the West Hamilton Beach Volunteer Fire Department and Ambulance Corps—described how he, then a 9-year-old kid growing up in Brooklyn, got involved working with his father, Joseph DeCandia, Sr., at Brooklyn’s Lenny’s Pizza in the 1960s.
At the time, DeCandia, Jr., now 49, who would normally be riding his bicycle along 86th Street, stopped by one day at his father’s workplace and, just like that, was helping out at the pizza parlor. “It all just went on from there,” DeCandia said, laughing as he recalled the story.
Working alongside his father for more than 40 years, DeCandia said it wasn’t always easy, but he learned the values of hard work, honesty and respect from Joe Sr., who came to America from Bari, Italy at age 18 in 1956.
“He taught me a lot, but I think the most important thing that he taught me was to respect others,” he said. “And ‘If you do good, look forward; if you do bad, put it behind you.’”
It is those values that have acted as the bedrock for DeCandia’s life over the last few decades. Not only did he get involved in his father’s business, Lenny’s Clam Bar on Cross Bay Boulevard—opened in 1974—but he also serves as president of the International Society of SS. Cosma and Damiano, a nonprofit started by his father.
Since the society, headed by 16 board members, was founded in Dec. 1990, they have donated more than $750,000 to numerous groups that help children and people struggling with illness. Those groups include St. Francis Hospital,
in Long Island, St. Jude Children’s Hospital, Ronald McDonald House, Make-a-Wish Foundation, New York Families for Autistic Children, local youth groups, and two little leagues, among others.
Cosma and Damiano— brothers who were the patron saints of physicians and pharmacists—were very important to his father, DeCandia said.
“When he came over from Italy, he felt that they helped him out when he needed it,” DeCandia said. “So, he believed in giving back, and in spreading the names of the saints.”
Among the causes the society helps that deals with both saints is children’s diabetes, which affects one in 400 children in the United States. DeCandia’s son, Jacob, has the illness.
“It’s challenging,” he said about dealing with his son’s affliction. “There are a lot of things that go into dealing with [diabetes] in children. There’s really no way of controlling a child’s sugar, and there’s no real science to it; it can’t be too low or too high, and it changes depending on what [children] eat.”
As the cause is one near to his heart, DeCandia and the society have made efforts to help those struggling with the
disease. Partnering with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), the society raised $150,000 last year through the annual South Queens Juvenile Diabetes Walk-A-Thon to Cure Diabetes and $400,000 for the cause overall as the result of various fundraising efforts—such as comedy nights, fashion shows and bowl-a-thons—in the last three years.
On the subject of why giving back to others is important to him, DeCandia explained, “I’m in a point in my life where I’m healthy and my family is healthy, so, if I can give back to people who need it, I will.”
Maria Cuomo, principal at Ave Maria Catholic Academy in Howard Beach, certainly knows of how much DeCandia is willing to give back to the community. Having known him for years, Cuomo credited DeCandia for playing a major
role in many of the school’s fundraisers, including coordinating the school’s Family Festival last summer—his first time—which raised $30,000 for the school.
“I can’t think of anyone who is more deserving of this award,” she said of DeCandia. “He’s genuinely a good person, and it’s hard for me to think of a more worthy candidate because of his unending contributions to the community, and especially Ave Maria.”
Having been very close to his father, DeCandia said it is still hard to think about when his father died in 2002. However, he likes to think that his father would be proud of all the work the society has done since then, and especially of the life that he leads now with his wife, Doreen, and children Jacob, 12, Juliet, 5, Joseph, 3, and baby Jillian, who
will turn one later this month.
“It’s been 10 years, and I still wish he was here, so he could see how successful everything has become,” DeCandia said. “And I wish he could still see his grandkids. He laid the foundation for what we’re doing; we just built on that. I hope he’s proud.”
By Jean-Paul Salamanca